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Music Exams: Pros, Cons & Alternatives

Music exams - some teachers love them others won’t touch them, but what might some alternatives be? Let’s have a look at not only the pros and cons of music exams, but also consider some other options.

Music exams are regarded by many teachers, parents and students as essential. Many teachers of my “older” generation grew up with music exams as part and parcel of learning an instrument. I don’t recall this being any problem in primary school, but I do remember being very nervous for the exams I took in high school, and even more so for university auditions. As a teacher I have entered many students for exams in the past, mainly where it was a requirement of the school, but now I am enjoying teaching “exam free”. So, what are some of the pros and cons of music exams, and what might some of the alternatives to music exams be?


  • Recognition: Exams give students widely recognized credentials; they may give students entry to higher education in music, or credits for high school.

  • Achievement: Receiving an exam certificate gives students a sense of accomplishment.

  • Motivation: Exams provide a goal to work towards, and a deadline by which the work must be completed. For students who like doing exams and do well, an exam provides a positive experience, and the student is encouraged to go on to the next grade.

  • Structure: Exams can provide a scaffold for lessons in terms of the material to be prepared for the exam, not only for repertoire, but also for technical work, aural and sight reading.

  • Opportunity: Exams provide an opportunity for students to perform under pressure, similar to a recital. The more often students do this, the more they learn about how to manage nervousness, a useful skill not only in music but in other areas of our lives. Note I say “manage”, not “overcome” nervousness, as most players including professionals, have some degree of nerves before a performance.

  • Impartial feedback: Examiners critique the performance, both the positive and negative aspects. A good examiner will give constructive suggestions for improvement and mention the student’s strengths as well as weaknesses. It can be helpful for both student and teacher to have an outside opinion of how the student is progressing.


  • Narrow focus: Focusing on exams only may limit the overall musical skills our students need. Often there is not enough time in lessons to cover all we would like to, and the time required to prepare an exam program may mean there is not time for teaching other skills such as improvisation, composition, or playing by ear.

  • Stress: The pressure of exams may curtail the student’s enjoyment of the music. If they are forced to do an exam, the associated stress may even cause them to give up music lessons.

  • Repertoire: Limitation of repertoire to the exam syllabus can be a problem, although many exam boards now offer some own choice of music, and most teachers give additional repertoire to the exam music. Depending on the scheduling of the exam, students may end up playing the same pieces for a very long time in preparation and lose interest in the music.

  • Fast tracking: Some parents can become very focused on their children getting through the grades as fast as possible, resulting in rushing through levels rather than fully exploring the skills and repertoire for each level, and music becomes just a competition.

  • Cost: Exams can be very expensive, especially at the higher levels.

  • Bad experience: if a student does not perform well on the day or has a “difficult” experience with the examiner, the exam may leave them with a negative attitude towards their playing. An exam is only a reflection of how the student performed on that one occasion, not of their overall ability.


Recital: This is a performance opportunity many teachers use, from small, informal party-recitals to formal recitals with presentation of awards. The student also benefits from the positive feedback of the audience applause, and as this is usually made up of supportive parents and students, it can be a great confidence booster!

Competition: Playing in a competition also provides an excellent goal and performance opportunity, and is another way to receive impartial feedback. Students need to be able to cope with not winning (if they do win, that’s a bonus!) and to understand that the adjudicator may have a different opinion from them about who should win the prizes!

Masterclass: These are a wonderful opportunity for students to receive feedback from another teacher, sometimes from a well-known performer who is visiting the area. Master classes are especially helpful for more advanced students and give them a chance not only to perform, but also to hear other students play.

Challenge Certificates: Students elect to do a 20-100 Piece Challenge, and when each piece has been learned and played to a satisfactory standard (according to the teacher), it is entered onto the list. When the student completes the list, they are awarded a